The writer and activist has never been comfortable with the label of woman. Now, in her 40s, she’s coming out as genderqueer
‘I think I might be genderqueer, or non-binary,” I said to my kids. They looked nonplussed. “I might have a hard time not calling you Mum,” one replied, “But I’ll try.”
“I’ll always be Mum,” I assured her.
“Ok, cool,” she said, before returning to her game.
That was it. Much easier than I thought it would be.
I’m not the first person in my family to come out — and this isn’t even the first time I’ve come out. At age 40, I put together that my attraction to women, and the sexual experiences I’d had with them, meant I was bisexual. I felt like a bit of a fool for not realising it decades earlier. I put it down to growing up in a heteronormative society. I’d just never spent time thinking about my sexuality. Even though I had personal experiences that should have tipped me off, I’d assumed I was the default one: heterosexual. Maybe I’m a slow learner, or it could be my autistic brain that tends towards believing what I’m told.
“You’re heterosexual,” may never have been explicitly said to me, but it was still communicated in thousands of ways — in the books I read, the education I received, the culture I was raised in.
Likewise, other people decided I was a girl, and I accepted it. I tried to fit into what it seemed society expected of me as best I could. I learned over the years how to ‘perform’ to get by. I can perform neurotypicalness (for a time, always at a cost to me), and I vividly recall the hours I spent figuring out how to perform girlhood, and later, womanhood. I wanted to be ‘normal’ for so long, because I knew I wasn’t, and I couldn’t see how someone like me fitted in. The most successful women I saw were in movies and on TV, so I tried to copy them, to varying degrees of success.
It’s taken me over four decades to understand that I don’t need to fit in; I don’t even want to any more. Perhaps, because of my age, I care less about what other people think of me than I ever have before. As a result, I feel freer than at any other point in my life.
In recent years, I’ve found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of womanhood as it relates to me. When people speak of me as a woman, I want to run away. That’s how it feels inside of me — like I want to escape. Because of these feelings, I started exploring my sense of identity, which started with investigating my motives.
I have no issue with the word ‘woman’ when used to describe others — it’s just that I no longer feel it relates to me. I don’t feel like I’m a man and I really don’t feel like I’m a woman, either.
When, years ago now, my then five-year-old told me she was a girl, I sought advice from professionals who told me to think of her as gender non-conforming. I didn’t like this term, because it starts with a negative — ‘non’ conforming — as if not conforming is a bad thing, rather than a wonderful thing. Also, my daughter was telling me she was a girl, so it seemed disrespectful to her wishes to not honour her chosen way of identifying. I read all I could about non-binary and trans kids, which at that stage was mostly research studies. Over the years since, I’ve listened to dozens of podcasts and panel talks, read many articles, academic and otherwise, and immersed myself in the world of the trans community. Never once when I was reading or listening did I apply any of the information to myself.
I believe this is because my autistic brain is very task-focused and the task at hand was learning for my child.
In the last few months, in my mid-40s, I’ve been wrestling with my feelings about gender and being referred to as a woman. I returned to many of the same podcasts and articles, this time thinking about myself as I listened or read.
What I wanted was permission, or validation, from these sources. I was seeking someone to give me permission to define myself. I know that it’s ridiculous to look to others for permission to define myself, but I was mindful of not claiming to be part of a community unless I’m certain I belong in that community. I wanted to hear from non-binary people and find out if my thoughts and feelings aligned with any of theirs.
I wondered whether my strong rejection of the word ‘woman’ came from my dealings with gender-critical women. They claim so much about women and claim to speak for women that it makes my skin crawl to even be loosely grouped with them. I spent time interrogating my motives to make sure that they were coming, not from a fear space, but from a place of power and authenticity.
The more I read books and listened to podcasts featuring non-binary people, the more I realised that there is no ‘right’ way to be non-binary. I heard from people who are gender-fluid, whose gender changes regularly; from people who use they/he/she, and people who don’t care what pronouns are used for them. I heard from people who identify as non-binary as a political statement.
I prefer the term genderqueer, which isn’t defined by what I’m not. It doesn’t start with a negative, and it exists without mention of the binary.
I don’t expect my day-to-day life to radically alter after everyone knows I’m genderqueer. I have no body dysphoria; I don’t want or need any surgery. I’m changing my pronouns to she/they, but I also wouldn’t care if ‘he’ was used for me. The important thing for me is that I reject the label (girl/woman) I was given by others. I don’t feel attached to any particular gender identity, but I know I don’t want to be viewed through the lens of ‘woman’.
After I came out to my children, I told two of my best friends, one of whom is a mother of a trans child and one who is a trans woman.
I was incredibly nervous about telling them. It’s such an awkward conversation to have. “Hello, can I have your attention please, I need to make this conversation all about me for the next while…”
My friends were, of course, lovely and supportive — they even changed the name of our WhatsApp group to make it gender-neutral. I’ve never been great at small talk, and the coming-out conversation was so awkward for me that I’m coming out to everyone else in my life by writing this article. People who know me and love me are well used to hearing about my life on social media rather than in-person — it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I’m awkward — so this is on-brand for me.
The biggest change I’ve experienced since coming out has been how different I feel out in the world. I went to Lidl and as I walked around, I felt a new sense of ease and comfort within myself, even though I was the only person who knew about the change I’d made. The ease came from not feeling like I have to pretend any more. I felt free from having to perform womanhood. I hadn’t realised how much of a load pretending to be something I’m not was, until it was removed from me. It was exhilarating.
I hadn’t changed anything about my appearance, no one interacted differently with me to how they usually do — but the way I viewed my place in the world had radically altered. The experience was so powerful and affirming for me that I had a deep knowing then that this is the right thing for me. This is true and it’s who I am.
I’m still in the early stages of exploring what being genderqueer means for me. When I look at all the roles I’ve had to play — girl, woman, girlfriend, wife, mother, lover, friend, I can see the interplays between my neurodivergence, my gender identity, society’s expectations and my expectations. These dynamics have often clashed and caused issues for me or those in my life. I can see where I have tried and failed to live up to the expectations placed upon me. I used to feel bad for being a mum who never felt particularly maternal. I’m empathic and kind, but I don’t think I’m as ‘warm’ as I expect maternal people are. I’m not sure of what society expects from a genderqueer mother and that’s probably a good thing. I’m delighted to be moving into the phase of my life where society’s expectations are of little import.
When I reflect on how I’ve tried to interact with womanhood in the last decade or so, I can see a through-line of how I’ve played with the idea of femininity. My outward appearance has become increasingly exaggerated versions of the feminine. I tend to be over the top in my day-to-day attire. I’ve often thought of myself as a ‘daytime drag queen’.
However, my visual style prioritises fun and colour over looking sexy or attractive. I’m excited to explore what emerges from inhabiting a genderqueer space. Who knows how silly and over-the-top my dress style will become? I don’t know where this new awareness of myself will take me. It’s uncharted waters, but the sense of freedom I feel is already life-changing.
In July, I was in Dublin for the Mother Pride Block Party Weekend at the National Museum of Ireland. The crowd was filled with LGBTQ+ people and allies. People of all ages, genders and non-genders, sexualities and nationalities, were laughing, smiling, dancing and being authentic. It was brimming with good vibes. It occurred to me that I’d never felt so safe in such a large crowd. It was like I’d briefly entered a Utopian society. The experience I had there reignited my exploration into my own gender. Now, I’m casting off the binary.
Goodbye expectations of society. Farewell to other people’s preconceptions. Sayonara to performing womanhood. I’ve tasted Utopia, I’m headed there.